Our Story

Owner and Executive Director Donna Tellier came from a large, low-income family, which often could not afford to do things like take dance classes or attend theatre. Despite their financial struggle, Donna’s parents enrolled her in a dance studio, and a whole new world unfolded right before her eyes. Unfortunately, the expense grew to be too much for her family and as a result, she would need to give up her dance classes, leaving her heartbroken. She vowed to eventually start a program that would be affordable for families like hers. As she grew up, Donna took classes when she could afford them. Often, the studios she attended would allow her to teach in exchange for classes, knowing how much she loved dance and the hardships that faced her. Sadly, when Donna was in her mid-teens, her father was hurt on the job, and once again, she had to leave dance classes so that she could use her income to help support her family.

When Donna’s children started school, her path was finally clear. After seeing a friend start an after-school program at her children’s school, Donna thought, “I can do this too!” And thus, Thornton Dance and Performing Arts was born in 1998! For just $3.00 a week, children were able to take dance classes! Donna sewed every child’s costume by hand so that they could be in a show at the end of the year. Parents and their extended families could attend a full-length recital for just $5.00. All of the money raised was given back to the program, with a mission to improve the town’s high school auditorium. As the years went on, we raised enough money to fund the dance education of students who could not afford the $3.00 a week or costumes.

As more schools in Johnston began to reach out about starting a program of their own. Donna decided to broaden the program. She started holding classes at the more centrally-located Johnston Senior High School, so that dance would be available to the entire community, including both children and adults within our town and the surrounding areas. As the program grew, Donna was able to offer acting classes and voice classes Eventually, she even began producing musicals, making sure to keep ticket prices affordable so that families could experience live entertainment without breaking the bank. In 2016, J-DAPA became a 501c3 non-profit organization, run by Donna and her two daughters. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 forced J-DAPA to shut its doors and leave Johnston High School for good. After a year of searching, we found a new space during the summer of 2021, and we are so happy to call it home. We worked tirelessly, alongside our incredible volunteers, to remodel and renovate our space in the most affordable way possible and re-opened on October 18, 2021.

Since our grand opening, we have worked continuously to improve our space and have been able to start producing theater again, with our long-postponed production of Matilda the Musical opening in June 2022, over two and a half years after beginning rehearsals. In early 2023, we even turned our studio into a black-box theater for a production of The One-Act Play That Goes Wrong!

“Through the years, I’ve often felt like I’ve been knocked down and fallen face-first into the mud. I don’t let it stop me, though. I pull myself together, wipe myself off and I keep going because I know just how badly my community needs this program. I know my dream is attainable with hard work and dedication, and I’ve built myself a team full of people who are dedicated to my dream.”

Donna Tellier, Owner and Executive Director

Mission Statement

The goal of J-DAPA is to promote a love and appreciation for the arts through involving performers of all ages throughout the Rhode Island Community. We strive to raise funds in an effort to keep costs low for children and adults to partake in theatrical arts. Our goal is to better the lives of the individual members of J-DAPA as well as audience members through fostering an appreciation and education of the arts.